6. A Game of Manga[s]

Looks like someone activated a trap card...

Looks like someone activated a trap card…

I thought this week I might deviate somewhat from my typical “everyone else is wrong, here is why I am so great” pomposity and focus on a print format that may at first appear to be only tangentially related to manga but in fact shows a great deal about the relative murkiness of distinctions between forms of print illustration that nowadays feel tried and true.  I have written previously about the promiscuity of the term manga, both in terms of national context as well as recent history.  There I spoke in more general, sweeping terms, so I’d like to focus here on a specific object, a sugoroku game board drawn by Okamoto Ippei, and how its multiple lines of origination show just how messy this thing called manga, that we might presume to know, really is.

India and/or China and/or Europe

The word sugoroku, which literally means “pair of sixes” (i.e. a pair of dice), can be used to refer to either of two games that are not terribly similar.  What is typically referred to as ban-sugoroku is a game similar to backgammon–in fact, the rules are only slightly different from modern backgammon–that in Japan goes back to at least the Nara period.  Like most aspects of classical Japanese culture, it seems to have entered Japan from China via the Korean peninsula.  The other common form, e-sugoroku or illustrated sugoroku, is what I wish to focus on here.  It seems to have entered Japan much later, at least the 13th century, and drastically increased in popularity during the Edo period.  It is somewhat similar to the ancient India game of snakes and ladders–with which most Americans are likely familiar in the Milton Bradley game Chutes and Ladders–where one progresses through a linear path either to be thwarted by snakes that track one back or ladders that propel one forward.  I say somewhat similar, because the Japanese game of sugoroku, by which I mean the latter of the two above, contains no such paths for sudden advancement or sudden failure–which makes a kind of sense, if you’ve ever worked in a Japanese company.

The "Olympic Games Sugoroku" from Shōnen kurabu

The “Olympic Games Sugoroku” from Shōnen kurabu

Though there are common rules for sugoroku, these do not always apply.  In fact, often a game board has printed on it its own rules that may very wildly or only slightly from what is standard.  Typically, a sugoroku board has a furi-dashi space where one starts and proceeds through a winding or spiral path toward the agari or finish.  Most often the form of gameplay is that of a kyōsō or race, where the object of the game is be the first to reach the finish.  If you’ve ever played a board game for children, then you likely have no need of my explaining this.  Yet, despite this commonality, the “race” can take many forms.  Sometimes, the board specific rules are necessitated by a game board that is modeled on another form of print illustration.


This “Railway Race Sugoroku” (Tetsudō kyōsō sugoroku) closely resembles a map of Japan, but not just any map rather the kind of rail map one typically sees used to display rail stops and the cost of a ticket from one’s point of origin to a particular destination.  The board has no obvious furi-dashi or agari, and at this resolution I am unable to read the instructions printed to the right of center.  What I can see is that both Tokyo and Osaka are distinct from all the other “stops,” outlined in a thick red border.  Some stops, such as Gifu and Kyoto, have a thick blue outline; some, such as Nara and Toyohashi, have a circular red border; while the rest are solid red dots.  I presume this means something, but I can’t read the rules.  At any rate, the map/game doesn’t conform to the ordinary sugoroku rules but instead relies on other forms of “reading” visual texts, in this case railway maps.

"Paradise Sugoroku" from Shōjo gahō

“Paradise Sugoroku” from Shōjo gahō

In this sugoroku from the shōjo magazine Shōjo gahō (Girls [sic] Illustrated), we see a different kind of “map” of the road to Paradise, represented here by a large tower at the center.  This board does have a clear furi-dashi and agari, but if you look closely there are diverging paths one might take toward the goal.  There is an only thinly veiled allegory in this piece–something along the lines of “there are many paths to enlightenment”–putting it more in line with the Indian game of snakes and ladders, even if this sugoroku still doesn’t resemble it, which were used throughout Indian history to teach moral lessons to children.  I am, however, much more interested in where this thing came from, a shōjo zasshi or girls’ magazine.  In histories of manga, the early sixties is an important period, because of the huge boom in weekly and monthly magazines for boys and girls that would later develop into the cheaply printed manga anthologies we have today.  However, as I have said before, those magazines were very different then from what they eventually morphed into, as they included short stories, articles, and game boards like the one above in addition to the manga we presume to know and love.


I’ve said a bit about the Pan-Asiatic origins of the sugoroku, yet I would like also to touch on something I have yet to see mentioned in any of the treatments of the historical origins of sugoroku I have read so far.  Now, clearly there were game boards of this kind prior to the massive swing toward modernization/Westernization in 19th century Japan, yet the resemblance of some to the satirical caricature game boards of 19th century Europe cannot simply be swept under the rug.

A typical e-sugoroku, this one about a couple "blessed with children" (kodakara)

A typical e-sugoroku, this one about a couple “blessed with children” (kodakara)

Though the “Regle du Jeu de L’Affaire Dreyfus et de la Verite” (“Rules of Play for the Dreyfus Affair and for Truth”) above plays differently from the “Blessed with Children Sugoroku” below it–for the French game’s peculiar rules are part of the social commentary–one can see that the forms of each are quite similar, spiraling from the outside into the “goal” in the center: the “naked truth” in “Rules” and a big ass family in “Blessed.”  Both are invested in a form of popular social commentary that makes one at least consider a Western influence upon the development of a pre-existing form, especially given how print culture in Japan from the 19th century onward was largely a function of exchange with the West.

Manga Sugoroku

Though Tezuka and his disciples among academics might deny Okamoto Ippei true manga artist status, it is hard to deny his place in manga history, which fact makes the following game board rather difficult to decipher and place within that history.

Okamoto Ippei's Manga sugoroku

Okamoto Ippei’s manga sugoroku, “A Housewife’s Best Friend” (Shufu no tomo)

Ippei was not the only early manga artist to create sugoroku, for Rakuten created at least one that I know of (“Election Race Sugoroku [Senkyo kyōsō sugoroku]), though it follows the far more conventional spiral pattern.  In “A Housewife’s Best Friend” (Shufu no tomo) there is a clear agari at the center but many points of entry, i.e. the yellow circles around the outside that enter onto the path further and further along.  The “man and wife” at the center are clear caricatures of Benzaiten and Daikokuten, two of the Seven Lucky Gods.  If you look closely, though, you might notice that the cloud on which the man/Daikokuten and his wife/Benzaiten are seated is also the thought bubble of the woman hatching from an egg near the upper right corner.  Ippei is drawing on manga in several ways here: the caricatures, which recall how the word manga was used to translate this concept into Japanese; the goofy gags; the thought bubble/agari; as well as well as the use of characters from popular children’s stories (see Momotarō, upside down, near the top center emerging from a peach).

Ippei brings together in this one sugoroku text an array of otherwise seemingly disparate elements that in conjunction reveal the world of Japanese print illustration to be a far from simple one.  There is a nondistinction between manga as caricature and manga as comics for children, a nondistinction between the old gods of luck and the newly imported “virtues” of capitalism, even a nondistinction between manga and games.  What all this seems to point to, at least to my mind, is the inadequacy of speaking of manga history and origins strictly in terms of a syllogistic linear descent.  Now, I know that I’ve made this point before, but it’s worth keeping this image in mind (along with the many things it seems to draw together and depict) whenever someone tries to tell you that manga is “simply this” or “simply that.”  In reality, even the form of manga is promiscuous, drawing as it does on many pictorial modes all at once.  And if you want to know what I mean by that, then… you’ll just have to buy the book once I finally finish it.

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. […] text were almost never printed this way, titles, signs, and captions often were.  In fact, many of the sugoroku I discussed last week use precisely this orthographic pathing.  Why is this important?  Well, titles and captions in […]

  2. […] just say I learned a few things about manga and games than I probably could have thought thanks to Ba […]

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